Unionize @Starbucks? But… but… We’re Family!

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Why has Starbucks, perceived by many as a progressive employer, been unable to avoid union organizing efforts?  To understand the complex elements of labor organizing it’s helpful to consider why workers unionize in the first place, a subject for which I have lots of first-hand experience. Drives to unionize are a dynamic that, despite sophisticated efforts by employers to make employees feel like “part of the family,” can crop up in any large company.  Understanding this dynamic starts with a recognition of how the basic economic, social, and legal underpinnings of a market economy tend to undermine corporate efforts to pre-empt unionization. 

This dynamic is distinct from “union avoidance” tactics, once organizing activity is underway.

Experienced labor organizers understand a couple of broad factors when approaching organizing targets.  One factor comes from that old labor saying – “Unions don’t organize workforces, poor management does.”  The second thing to grasp is that unionizing is not all about the money.  While economic empowerment is the cornerstone of employee satisfaction, workplace dissatisfaction often boils down to a real or perceived lack of basic fairness coupled with an employee’s perceived inability to address disparities.

Think of an individual faced with a legal dilemma.  To address a real or perceived power imbalance one typically hires an attorney.  Likewise, individual employees who feel they are on the short end of an employment power dynamic have the option of “hiring” a union to balance things out. Try as employers might to foster an impression of employee empowerment (including such psychological tactics as referring to employees as “associates” or “partners”), the simple fact is that in the end, final decisions regarding employee conditions and compensation are largely out of an individual employee’s hands.

That raw fact can feel “unfair” to employees particularly when it comes to pay, working conditions, and benefit packages. When such frustrations reach a certain level, employees will sometimes turn to what is often their last resort – union organizing.  This isn’t necessarily an indictment of how “good” an employer is (although being a “bad” employer doesn’t help) but rather stems from the nature of “at will” private sector employment.  

Under “at will” labor regulations, nonunion employers have the final say regarding pay, working conditions, and whether an employee is hired or discharged.  In “at will” states (such as Washington) employees can be fired from their job at any time, and employers are not required to provide a “cause” for termination (they often do but it is not required under the law).  Provided an employer is not violating a specific statutory restriction (such as anti-discrimination laws), employees can and are discharged for no reason.  In fact, it is often preferable for an employer to state no reason when terminating an employee to avoid potential litigation. 

 The simple legal reality is that unless an employee is working under a union contract the ultimate control over one’s livelihood is solely in the hands of the employer.  The feeling of powerlessness that comes from that imbalance can only be addressed definitively by “forming a union.”

But couldn’t this unhappy employee simply find another job? Not readily. There is not always another economically viable job readily available, and finding a decent job can be very, very difficult. Secondly, there are enhancements to long term employment that are lost when transitioning to a different job. Changing jobs in the “blue collar” environment typically sets an individual back financially and can be very destabilizing for families.  Besides, most workers who seek unionization enjoy many aspects of their jobs. Why should they disrupt their lives when they have the statutory right to “form a union”? Why not work collectively with co-workers to make the company a better place to work?

Once “majority status” is established through a government-supervised election the employer sits down with the employee designated bargaining representative (the union) and bargains “in good faith” various “mandatory subjects of bargaining.” These subjects are limited to employee compensation and working conditions and are not intended to undermine “management rights.”  Most labor agreements have “management rights” provisions that specifically prohibit unions from affecting management’s ability to run the company save for how such management might affect employee working conditions – not always an insignificant exception.

Before employees and their union reps can get to the bargaining table, employee organizers have to wade through the process of certifying their majority status. This is where employers are allowed to dissuade employees from supporting unionization.  For those in the legal world who provide “union avoidance “services, it’s big business.  

This is where the simple statutory “right” to organize a union typically gets bureaucratic, contentious, and often ugly. Starbucks’ union organizing efforts are making headlines largely due to their aggressive “union avoidance” approach.  Seattle’s iconic coffee house may present itself as a progressive Left Coast success story, but under pressure such a company can develop a public image as mainstream corporate as Walmart.

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Writer and civic leader David Freiboth headed the King County Labor Council and oversaw labor relations at the Port of Seattle

7 COMMENTS

  1. It is tiring listening to the perceived plight of workers in Seattle that, with their paultry incomes cannot afford housing, they should be paid a livable wage. When a business, large or small, is confronted with this, the answer is usually give in – raise wages and provide benefits. But when it is Starbucks, the story loses believability. The company is busy, pays industry high wages and is generally a great place to work. Isn’t the REAL issue not being able to voice political or personal opinions in the workplace ?
    Unionization strikes and walkouts can be obviated by customers crossing the picket lines and nonunion suppliers delivering goods, or getting by until the strike funds run dry.

    Will someone please follow up on the thrift shop walkout.

    • I’ll tell you what’s “tiring.” Arguments like this are “tiring.” People who don’t work at Starbucks who claim to decide for those who do what “the REAL issue” is. That’s what’s “tiring.” Advocating for scabbing and union-busting is “tiring.” If you’re tired, Phil, take a nap. Have sweet dreams. I’ll be supporting Starbucks workers in their efforts to unionize the whole company, wall to wall.

      • My late mother always reminded me to “work” in another’s shoes before I criticized….How right she was.

  2. I wonder if American companies should adopt the German formula of allowing workers to have more say in the direction of the company and positions on the boards of directors. That seems to me to respond to workers’ sense of powerlessness and to absorb their concerns into the policies of the company, rather than institutionalizing conflict by unionizing.

    • Anybody who has been in a union soon will realize it is no panacea. Belonging does not make the work any easier. If you don’t like what you do , find a job that you do – or start your own business and treat your employees the way you wanted to be.

  3. Starbucks has become my coffee shop of last resort not because its coffee drinks are subpar but because its coffee shop ambiance is gone, reduced to that of an automat. Routinely, some perky 20-something person will seek to convince patrons that ‘medium’ size is actually a ‘Grande’ in Starbucks speak and that your hand-crafted bespoke order will be moments away at the end of the counter in a paper cup no less. Reality check, the product and service are not all that special and most jobs at Starbucks are entry-level positions. Unionizing these people implies that they will become indentured servants to the barista profession and consigned to serving bitter concoctions to ungrateful people.

  4. Please try to understand that “perky” is a mask that lower paid customer facing employees adopt in order to remain sane. That is their way of being polite to people whom they know regard them as being a lower class than they are.

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